River Jude Phoenix was born on August 23, 1970, in Madras, Oregon; His name inspired by ‘The River of Life’ in Hermann Hesse’s book Siddhartha. His parents, John Lee Bottom and Arlyn Dunetz, followed a lifestyle born of the 1960s hippy movement as they worked as farm labourers; their roots never tied to any one place for too long.
By 1972, with River aged two, the Bottoms had joined the notorious cult of ‘The Children of God’. A religious movement grounded in indoctrination, evangelical belief and practices of ‘free love’, now known to have included child abuse. It was during this time that River became a big brother to Rain. Followed soon after by his first and only brother Joaquin and two more sisters Liberty and Summer. During their time with the cult, the family lived in Texas, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Consequently leading River to busk with his younger siblings on street corners while attempting to spread the word of the cult.
The exact details of River’s cult experiences as a young pre-teen boy are clouded in soundbites and hear-say. However, River did make guarded comments in interviews relating to the possible sexual abuse he may have suffered.
Fame comes knocking
By 1978 the family had fled the destructive cult and returned to the United States in poverty. Living in Florida with Arlyn’s mother in a cramped house, barely suitable for a family of five children. It was during this time that River’s talent for music and performing began to shine through. He took part in local talent competitions and small TV commercials, his magnetic ability to hold the screen only increasing with each role he took. The result of which was more offers of substantial parts. This would ultimately lead the whole family to move to California in search of further success for River.
Of course, it wasn’t long before their move began to bear fruit, with River’s first film coming shortly after, alongside fellow teen star Ethan Hawke in The Explorers (1985). However, despite high production values, Explorers never took off at the box office, up against the might of Back to the Future and Live Aid on its release. But, despite the disappointing launch of Explorers, the movie did open the door to further roles. And River quickly followed Explorers with TV work followed by Stand by Me and Mosquito Coast, both cementing his place as one of the brightest young talents in Hollywood. But, far from being a mere teen idol, River’s talent was embedded in the beauty of James Dean, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. His sheer magnetism lighting up the silver screen while paving the way for a whole group of new exciting actors.
The loss of a unique talent
River sat at the head of a new wave of young Hollywood leading men. Including the young talents of Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt and Leonardo Di Caprio. However, it was River who shone brighter than many of his talented contemporaries. His beliefs on animal welfare, veganism, equality, and the environment challenging the Hollywood masculine archetype. While his natural style of performance helped him inhabit the roles he played, leading to character portrayals of extraordinary depth and clarity.
However, Rivers light was to burn with a short intensity, as he died aged just 23 on October 31, 1993, outside the Viper Club in Los Angeles. His younger brother Joaquin, sister Rain, and girlfriend Samantha Mathis at his side. His young body failing through a mixture of prescription drugs, cocaine and morphine. The shockwave that followed equalled the loss of James Dean, as Hollywood mourned a true star. While the global outpouring of grief that followed played testament to River’s talent, sincerity, and beauty, his fanbase never let go of his place in redefining the role of Hollywood’s leading men.
River left behind an enviable body of work comprising 24 films and television appearances. His performances still finding new audiences today, while Joaquin continues to carry the torch lit by his brother. River Phoenix changed Hollywood, and more importantly the role of men on screen. His legacy and talent burnt into the fabric of modern cinema.
So join us as we explore the finest examples of River’s on-screen work, movies that shine with River’s talent and ensure his legacy lives on with every new generation.
Joe Dante’s 1985 space adventure never managed to rise to the top of the cinema charts. Its launch colliding with a week that saw Back to the Future reign supreme and Live Aid capture TV audiences. However, since its original release, Explorers has continued to gain a cult following. Its mixture of children’s Sci-Fi and offbeat comedy entrancing new generations of film fans.
River was cast as the nerdy Wolfgang Muller, forever conducting experiments in his dad’s workshop. At the same time, Ethan Hawke was cast as the regular hero kid of the picture. Early in production, it was clear to both the cast and director that River was different from most other child actors. His passion for embodying his character almost excessive. His lack of formal education challenged and pushed him to achieve on set—Driving River to success, as he strove to improve his family’s financial position and find his place in Hollywood.
Explorers mixture of pop culture and science fiction may have flopped, but its warm, humour driven script is still a joy to watch; River clearly learning his craft in a film that glows with offbeat humour. Watching Explorers today is a beautiful trip back into the innocence of 1980s cinema, in a movie that captures the changing dynamics of family, society and culture.
Stand by Me (1986)
Based on the Stephen King novella ‘The Body, ‘ Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me is one of the greatest coming-of-age films ever produced. A love letter to simpler times, childhood freedom and the role of friendship in early adolescence. Stand by Me dovetails 50’s nostalgia with a layered exploration of family, friendship, bereavement and belonging that still feels timeless and fresh.
River turned 15 on the set of Stand by Me, his journey to adulthood echoing the hormonal displacement of his character. However, unlike many of the other boys on set, River used his own experience of puberty to define his role; his character Chris Chambers a sensitive yet scared leader. A tough guy, internally struggling with identity and purpose. Here River dovetailed Chris with his own lived experience of sitting outside of mainstream society. His vulnerability and emotion resembling a young James Dean. Just like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, Stand by Me would open up a world of teenage possibilities for River. And would ultimately lead to his teen idol status, a label that troubled him throughout his career.
Celebrating childhood in all its boundless imagination and wonder while mourning how quickly that wonder vanishes, Stand by Me was not an instant success. In fact, it struggled even to make it to cinema screens. However, with Reiner’s direction and a stunning young cast, Stand by Me soon found its feet as an instant and undeniable classic of modern cinema. A delicate, energetic, touching, and melancholic exploration of childhood, teenage emotion and family. Its final messages remind us of the conflicts between dreams and reality as we take our first tentative steps into adult life. The excitement of adulthood interlaced with a need for comfort, understanding and protection, as the teenager emerges.
Stand by Me is the final summer of childhood innocence for a group of boys on the verge of adolescence and, in turn, the sunset of River’s childhood. The emotion of his past and present colliding on screen for all to see. His outstanding performance still sending a shiver down the spine in its realism and emotional intelligence.
The Mosquito Coast (1986)
Peter Weirs 1986 Mosquito Coast placed the young River alongside the on-screen royalty of Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren. Adapting the Paul Theroux novel into an onscreen journey of fanaticism, love and fear. Ford’s ‘Allie Fox‘ dragging his family across South America in search of a dream that never truly exists. His colonial views clashing with a real-world belief in environmentalism and change as his son (River) tries to navigate the nuances of opinions sitting between his rhetoric and unstable emotions.
River was not the first choice for ‘Charlie’, with director Peter Weir set on Wil Wheaton. However, when Weir discovered River’s past living in Latin America and his family history of travelling. The parallels between character and actor were too good to be true, with River being able to use his lived experience to embody Charlie Fox. His performance easily matching the powerhouse delivery of Ford and Mirren. But, for River, love would also come out of the jungle, with Martha Plimpton entering his life. Their loving relationship continuing right up to his death.
Why not also explore The Mosquito Coast (Apple TV)
Running on Empty (1988)
The Popes have been living a secret life since the 1960s. Their children – especially the oldest ‘Danny’ (Phoenix), has never known anything different. His life a rollercoaster of perpetual turmoil, where stability is never guaranteed in either school or home life. The actions of his parents during the 60s still haunting every moment. However, as he grows and his music talent shines through—family division and future opportunity clash with a need for growth and change.
Once again, River found himself cast in a picture that ultimately led to comparisons with his own life. The need to break free from parental control, coupled with a longing for the comfort and safety of family at any cost. However, within his delicate, intelligent, and precise portrayal of Danny, River showed his adult acting ability. Shaking off the cocoon of teenage life and emerging as an Oscar contender. Here, director Sydney Lumet allows River to spread his wings after two distinctly average films with ‘Jimmy Reardon‘ and ‘Little Nikita‘. Both of which could have stereotyped Phoenix forever as a simple teen idol. Meanwhile, in reuniting with his partner Matha Pimpton on-screen, River once again seemed comfortable and settled.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
I can hear you as a type this section. Some of you will be saying, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade wasn’t a River Phoenix led film”. And others will be saying, “River was only in the first 20 minutes”. Well, while accepting the second comment, I completely disregard the first, offering the following thoughts.
River Phoenix not only gave us the perfect young Indiana Jones but managed in the space of 20 minutes to make the character his own. His teenage Indie layered with tidbits of Harrison Ford’s performance while in turn oozing the youthful energy and wide-eyed wonder only River could exude. So while his role may have been short, River Phoenix single-handedly launches the third Indiana Jones instalment. The only pity is, we never got to see more of him as the whip-cracking young scout.
On release, Dogfight found itself labelled as a romantic movie. However, its themes run much deeper than pure romance. The year is 1963, and Eddie Birdlace (Phoenix) is enjoying a final night in San Francisco before being shipped to Vietnam. His marine buddies playing a game of ‘dogfight’ otherwise known as “who can pick up the ugliest girl in town”. However, things quickly progress from a game to natural sexual attraction between River’s unconfident and immature ‘Birdlace’ and Lili Taylor’s Rose.
River embodies the character of a young marine while also delivering a performance full of complexity within a role that could quickly become stereotypical. However, in the hands of Phoenix, we get a masterclass in nuance. The fear of the unknown matches the immaturity of Birdlace, the innocent boy hiding within the body of a man. Phoenix’s Birdlace isn’t sure of himself, his role, or the mission he is about to embark on. With Rose offering a safety blanket and security. Here, Birdlace learns that love and attraction are based on more than pure image. And that life has a canny way of throwing us a lifeline even when we fear its outcomes.
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
You may think that a film based on male prostitution would focus on sex. But Gus Van Sant’s 1991 picture does not wrap itself in stereotypical themes of prostitution and sexuality. My Own Private Idaho plays with Shakespeare’s Henry IV part I and II. At the same time, placing its central characters into the urban bustle and rural beauty of Portland, Oregon. The freedom of the wide-open landscapes coupled with a suffocating yet intoxicating cityscape. Here, Scott (Keanu Reeves) and Mike (River Phoenix) care for each other, sharing their hopes and dreams through a web of male love and longing.
For both River and Keanu, ‘Idaho’ was a considerable risk. After all, this was a film centred around themes still taboo in early 90s America. Both men subverting their teen idol status in exploring street hustlers and sexuality. But for River, this was also an opportunity to immerse himself in street culture, hidden communities and America’s darker edge. His character open to shape, shadows and nuance alongside a Director who thrived through creativity.
This urge to build his character from the street up led River to spend several nights on Portlands city streets. Talking with rent boys while momentarily living their life and even dabbling in their work. His mission to ensure Mike accurately gave voice to men and boys without one. The result is one of the finest performances ever committed to celluloid. An Oscar-worthy lead performance that proved too risky for Hollywood attention.
Idaho takes us on an unforgettable journey into love amid hurt, companionship and a dream-like need for belonging and safety. Creating not only one of the most beautiful LGBTQ films of the past 30 years. But also a film that fully shows the divine talent of a young acting legend.